More than a decade before Jack the Ripper butchered at least five prostitutes, half a dozen children and teenagers were killed, mutilated and sometimes raped in New England. It was the work of a shiftless con man named Franklin Evans.
Unlike Jack the Ripper, who concentrated his murders in a dense London slum, Franklin Evans committed his crimes hundreds of miles apart from each other.
He was an itinerant preacher, a phony doctor, a thief, an insurance fraud, a beggar and a borderline tramp whose biggest mistake may have been staying in one place too long.
His contemporaries called him “the most monstrous and inhuman criminal of modern times—or indeed of any time.”
Evans was born in Strafford, N.H., in 1807, and from his youth he “led a roving and miserable life,” according to The New York Herald. He lived in a number of places in New Hampshire, often sponging off relatives: Manchester, Concord, Allenstown, Derry, Salem and Candia. Evans also roamed through Massachusetts, Maine and Canada. He committed his final atrocity — the one that got him caught — in Northwood.
He was of medium height with a slim build, and he had sharp features: a thin face and dark, piercing eyes. A newspaper reporter wrote that a shrewd observer could detect him as “cunning, shrewd and unprincipled.”
In 1832 he married a Strafford woman, apparently a widow, Mrs. Hannah Peavey. The union lasted until her death, and they had a son and a daughter.
According to the New York Herald, “He pretended to read medicine with Dr. Hanson, of Manchester, and calling himself a botanic physician he practiced as such more or less among ignorant people. Once he roamed the country with an electrical battery, which he pretended to use professionally, and again he went around giving exhibitions with a magic lantern.” He also did odd jobs along the way to support himself.
He married a second time, but that wife left him. So did a third.
The 1850 Mills Murder
He was living in Salem when his second wife left him in the fall of 1850. Shortly afterward, on October 30, a kidnapper snatched the five-year-old daughter of Stephen Mills from her home in Derry. Her parents had left the child alone. Her body was never found.
Evans later confessed to the crime. Passing by the Mills house, he said, he saw a little girl playing on the floor. Possessed of the urge “to procure a body to examine for surgical purposes,” he climbed through a window and grabbed the child. Evans then carried her into the woods, where he strangled her. But when he took off her clothes, he saw she had a deformed hip and spine. Repelled, he decided not to rape her and mutilate her body. Instead, he buried her under a rotted chestnut stump.
As a quack botanical physician, he spent a lot of time in the woods hunting for medicinal herbs – and, apparently, hiding bodies. Three years later, he was skulking in the woods near Augusta, Maine. A 14-year-old girl named Anna Sibley had the misfortune to walk by him on the way to school. He grabbed her, carried her deeper into the forest, raped her, cut her throat and hid her body under a pile of leaves.
“The Rev.” Franklin Evans
Fast forward a decade to 1862. Evans adopted a sanctimonious look and styled himself an Adventist preacher. He had the gift of gab, and for a while he was able to take advantage of the religious ardor of the day. But he tended to get caught out.
The New York Herald reported he once attended an Adventist meeting in Boston. “In the garb of a hypocrite, he appealed successfully to the sympathies of the audience, who raised him a good contribution,” the newspaper reported. “The next day he spent most of it for a meerschaum pipe, and his religious friends hearing of it would never have anything more to do with him.”
After raising money for his mission, he used it to visit prostitutes. His arrest forced him to move on.
The Murder of Lura Libby
In 1862 he went to preach in Augusta, Maine. He visited the home of an Adventist family, the Libbys, in the nearby town of Strong. One Sunday morning nine-year-old Lura Libby left the house to walk to church. She never made it. On Monday the townspeople organized a search for the girl. Late that day they discovered a shallow grave near the Libby farmhouse. They uncovered Lura’s naked, mutilated body. Her killer had raped her and slashed her throat, nearly decapitating her.
An Irish farmhand named Lawrence Doyle was suspected of the murder. He said he didn’t do it. Though prosecutors had only flimsy evidence, a jury found him guilty. He died in prison six years later, all the while claiming they got the wrong man.
His lawyers thought so too. Later, when Evans awaited execution for murder, Doyle’s lawyer connected him to the killing of Lura Libby.
The 1865 Joyce Murders
By the end of the Civil War, tramps were a common sight in Massachusetts. Veterans, demoralized by camp life or traumatized by the conflict, took to the road without any employment or desire for it. Franklin B. Evans, then with long gray hair and a beard, fit right in.
In 1965, he was delivering his Adventist lectures around Boston when two children were found dead in a forest called Bussey’s Woods, now part of Arnold Arboretum, in Roxbury.
Someone had raped and murdered Isabella Joyce, 14. Her killer stabbed her 27 times in the torso, 16 times in the neck. She’d put up a fight and tried to grab her assailant’s knife, which severed her index finger. Her killer had stuffed clumps of grass in her mouth.
Her 11-year-old brother, John, had apparently watched in terror until he turned and ran, but he tripped on a root. The murderer caught up with the prostrate boy and plunged a knife in his back six times. The knife had gone completely through his small body.
A woman had seen a tramp in the woods, a man with long hair and a haggard, frightening appearance. He had asked if she knew of any evergreen in the area. She screamed at the top of her lungs and ran.
The outraged community launched a massive manhunt for the killers.
Police questioned three suspects, all of whom had alibis. Then someone found a male skeleton in the woods in Needham, 12 miles away. Police concluded that had to be the killer because of a quantity of hair found nearby. It matched the description of the tramp’s hair that the witness had noticed.
But no one in Boston noticed Franklin Evans returned to New Hampshire.
Years later, as he sat on death row, he revealed to a sheriff that he knew a lot more about the Joyce murders than he should have.
And a Boston Traveler reporter tracked down the witness in the vase. He showed her a bunch of pictures, including one of Evans. “She immediately, unhesitantly identified it as the portrait of the man who had so frightened her,” the newspaper reported.
The 1870 Travelers Fraud
By 1870, Franklin Evans lived in Derry at the home of his brother-in-law, Elias Evans. He took out a monthlong $1,500 accident insurance policy with the Travelers Insurance Company, saying he planned a trip to Canada. He named his brother-in-law as the beneficiary.
Then he checked into a hotel in Hampton, N.H., and claimed he intended to go swimming. He left clothing on the beach, with papers in the pants that had his name on them. He holed up in Northern Vermont for a while, and then to Elias’ barn.
Elias, meanwhile, went to Hampton looking for his brother-in-law to establish his death by drowning. A suspicious insurance adjuster denied the claim.
Two years later, a woman’s body was found in the woods near Fitchburg, Mass. Evans later admitted to raping and killing her.
1872 Georgianna Lovering
Shortly after the Fitchburg murder, Evans moved into his sister’s home in Northwood, N.H., a small town along the turnpike that connects Concord with Portsmouth. His sister lived with her husband, her widowed daughter and her granddaughter, 13-year-old Georgiannia Lovering – “a pretty and pleasing girl,” the New York Times reported.
Evans paid for his room and board by picking up work at a nearby farm. He also set snares in the woods to catch partridges – and, as he later confessed, to catch Georgiannia. The girl, he later explained, had caught him altering a $1 bill to $10.
On Oct. 24, 1872, he asked Georgiannia to check on his snares the next day because he planned to go to work. The following morning she kissed her mother goodbye and set out for the woods.
She never came back. Her frantic family raised the alarm, and the community organized a search for her. For four days they looked for Georgiannia, but didn’t find her.
Sheriff Henry Drew suspected Evans, who hadn’t gone to work on the day of Georgiannia’s disappearance. Evans, under questioning, said a man named Webster had abducted the girl and taken her to Kingston, N.H. The sheriff didn’t believe him. When a search didn’t find Georgiannia in Kingston, Drew brought him to his home, plied him with liquor and badgered him to tell the truth.
Finally Drew said, “Is the girl dead?”
Evans said, “She is, Mr. Drew, and I have done wrong.”
Drew said if he showed him the girl’s body, he’d help him escape to Canada. He’d even split the prize for finding her. Evans believed him.
Franklin Evans Finally Caught
In the dead of night, Evans and Drew plunged into the woods. Drew had arranged for witnesses to follow them secretly.
Evans, holding the lantern, led the way into a swamp. They fell several rimes. Finally, muddy and wet, they reached a dismal hollow, where Evans stopped, pointed to a heap of stones and rubbish, and said, “There.”
“What?” replied Drew.
“There,” said Evans. He stooped down and scraped away some leaves, which disclosed a white object. Drew put his hand on it and realized he’d found the body of Georgiannia Lovering,
Then he clapped iron handcuffs on Franklin Evans.
Evans later confessed he had hidden in wait for Georgiana, strangled her with his hands and raped her corpse. Then he cut out her sexual and reproductive organs. He said he did it to study her anatomy.
His three-day trial started Feb. 3, 1863. On the second day of the trial he tried to hang himself with his suspenders.
Evans pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. After a half hour of deliberation the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to hang after stewing in jail for a year, as New Hampshire law required. While in jail he sang hymns and played the pious preacher. But he also admitted to other murders as he sat on death row.
In the end, he signed a written confession admitting only to the murder of the Mills child and Georgiannia Lovering.
On Feb. 17, 1874, a hangman launched Franklin Evans into eternity. He wore a black suit and appeared calm as the sheriff put a black hood over his head. At 11:06 a.m., the sheriff pressed his foot on the drop spring and released the trap door.
Franklin Evans slowly strangled. It took 20 minutes for his heart to stop beating. Then he was cut down.
His final destination: Dartmouth Medical College, where students dissected his body.
With thanks to Psycho USA by Harold Schechter and The Northwood Murderer from the Murder By Gaslight blog.
Images: Arnold Arboretum By Daderot at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18516106. Maine woods by Paul VanDerWerf via Flickr, CC By 2.0.